I grew up in a church community that I was a part of, not by choice, but because my family was part of it. I think it is true of many Indian families – your parents’ church is your church. Many may love this practice, but for some young people, including myself, as I grew older, I longed for the freedom to worship where I wanted to. This church, as any other church in the world, has its flaws, but it has great strengths too – the most important being the focus on sound teaching but as a young girl, all I chose to see were their restrictions and ‘legalism’, as I perceived it then. In my quest for the perfect church, I constantly found faults and rebelled, though often only inwardly. Though I know, even more so now, how much it has helped me in my journey of knowing and understanding the Scriptures and God’s character, at that time I could not wait for a chance to find my own church community, one where I chose to belong, not out of obligation or the need for approval.
At 22, when I moved to Bangalore, I finally had the chance to look for a church on my own!. For the first two months, I tried different churches- some that looked really ‘cool’ and fun, some that had great musical talent, and others recommended by friends. But I still hadn’t found my ‘perfect church’. I finally decided to try out the church a close friend recommended knowing my inner struggles with my parents’ church. To avoid feeling pressurised to join a particular church, I had been acting like a scared little kid who would just look around, observe what was happening and run away the minute someone approached me. I did the same with this church and continued this way for a couple of months even though I began to really enjoy worshipping and studying God’s word with the community there. I didn’t want to hang around after church long enough for people to notice me and come up to me.
In spite of my weekly routine of scurrying off after church, there were two women, one younger than me and another much older, who sought me out and would quickly ask how I was and give me a hug. Though I barely knew them, those few moments each week were enough for me to experience the love of Christ which just exuded from these lovely women. In my time there, I grew to admire and learn so much from them. Soon after, they encouraged me to get to know more people my age and saw my love for singing and nudged me to join the Christmas choir. Our church elder, at whose house the practices were held, made it a point to see that I had a safe ride back to my hostel every Sunday after practice, though I lived 25 kilometres away.
As time passed, my commitment and involvement in the church deepened. The church encouraged everyone to be engaged and not be passive participants. This meant that God opened many more opportunities for me to learn His word in that church like I had never learned before. On the personal front, I went through many tough emotional experiences those two years in college and I couldn’t thank God enough for the strength I received from the church.
This church was far from perfect but I believe God used it to shape a lot of my understanding of who He is. I was there, with my notebook and pen, hungry to learn, and how I enjoyed the riches of His word! I especially enjoyed the studies on theology - I began to understand so much more of God’s sovereignty, something I barely thought of before. I saw men and women glorify God with their life choices and learned so much from them. They walked the talk! I was encouraged by many younger and older men and women as they pushed me to trust in God and to love His people more. I made great friends, enjoyed many sleepovers where we played Mafia and sang till the wee hours of the morning with friends. At the end of my time there, the church also conducted my wedding and as I stood there looking at my big extended family (for that is what they became), holding my husband’s hands, my eyes brimmed with tears of joy and gratitude for the chance to experience God’s love so richly through this community.
Though the church had its share of weaknesses and struggles, I loved it and I grew a lot in the Lord in my time there. As I reflect on that time and my church experiences since, I have learned two fundamental features of a healthy church:
What is it that distinguishes a community of God’s people from other communities? Christ-like love. Genuine and pure without expecting to be loved in return. Love not only for one’s own self and community, but also extends to strangers, even those who hurt them. And in today’s society, I must add, love that loves even those who have different political, religious, or moral opinions.
“And by this all men will know that you are my disciples if you love one another.” John 13:35
And though it is difficult to even imagine this sometimes, it is possible for each of us to be instruments of this Perfect Love to display the riches of His grace to everyone around us. This is possible because He first loved us – Love is from God and love is an important characteristic of anyone born of God (1 John 4:7-8). The Spirit pours out His love in our hearts (Romans 8:5). As we love Him more and more, we become more like Him and as His image bearers, we can begin to love others like He loves us. And when we fail and confess, His grace doesn’t run dry; instead He is ready to forgive us! This very love was evident in the women who were instrumental in my decision to join my Bangalore church community. This very love that I saw in them drew me closer to Christ.
Christ-Centered Community, Teaching and Worship
What is church/worship about? GOD! My three-year-old loves to answer any question during family prayer time with one answer – GOD. And if that is met with an amused look, her response changes to ‘JESUS’! But in this case, her answers would be spot on.
Too often, in our quest for a perfect church (which doesn’t exist), our criteria is endless. We look at the church like judges in some talent show, evaluating the quality of singing, deciding if worship was good by how moved we were by the music, looking through the sermon to pick out points we disagree with, trying to see if we ‘fit in’ and how the church makes us feel, and so on. I have done this in the past and still find myself doing it now. In the book, 'Church: Why Bother', Philip Yancey writes, “The church exists primarily not to provide entertainment or to encourage vulnerability or to build self-esteem or to facilitate friendships but to worship God. If it fails in that, it fails!”
The focus of worship is God! As His child, if I can worship Him only in a certain setting, with a certain circle of people, in a particular style, then my comforts and preferences are the focus areas of my worship, not God Himself. But when I am focused on Him, and my whole being cries out in prayer and worship with His people, I do not need the stirring of my heart by the melody of the song or the rhythm of the guitar. He is enough.
“The perfect church service would be the one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God!”
C. S. Lewis
The Church is the body of Christ, made up of sinners saved by grace, in whose hearts the Spirit continues the work of sanctification till Christ returns and the Church is made perfect. Till then, there is no such thing as a perfect church. Yet, as imperfect and weak as the church often is, God’s intent is that through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms (Ephesians 3:10).
Let us be encouraged and humbled by this, that we, the Church, the community of God’s people reflect our heavenly Father’s wisdom to the whole world – even to the heavenly realms!